Bernard Meadows

Black Crab


Not on display

Bernard Meadows 1915–2005
Object: 425 × 340 × 242 mm
Purchased 1982


Meadows's crab sculptures were inspired by his war-time service with the Royal Air Force on the Cocos Islands in the South Indian Ocean, where he observed the shapes and behaviour of crabs. Unlike his 1952 Crab (Tate Gallery T03759), Black Crab is not modelled on any one species but represents, in Meadows's own phrase, 'the distillation or essence of crabness'. The crab suggests a hard, aggressive exterior shielding a soft internal form. W.J. Strachan (Connoisseur, April 1974) reproduces six related sketches, two of which are particularly close to the finished sculpture.

An unspecified cast of Black Crab was exhibited in the British Pavilion at the 1952 Venice Biennale, alongside sculptures by seven other young British artists. The art critic Herbert Read, in his catalogue introduction to these sculptures, characterised the bleak nature of post-war British sculpture with the phrase 'the geometry of fear'. His description of 'images of flight, of ragged claws "scuttling across the floors of silent seas" ' is particularly appropriate for this piece. Black Crab was widely exhibited in the British provinces during the 1950s, and was again shown at the Venice Biennale in 1964.

Black Crab was cast by the lost wax process at Fiorini's foundry in the King's Road, London. There are eight casts of this work, plus one artist's cast.

Further reading:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1988, p.529, reproduced
W.J. Strachan, 'The Sculptor and his Drawings 2. Bernard Meadows', Connoisseur, vol.185, no.76, April 1974, pp.288-93, reproduced pl.2 (Clare College, Cambridge cast)
Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, Much Hadham and London 1995, p.136, reproduced pl.18

Terry Riggs
January 1998

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Display caption

Meadows became interested in the behaviour of crabs while stationed on the Cocos Islands in the South Indian Ocean during the Second World War. This sculpture, he explained, represented 'the distillation or essence of crabness'. British sculpture in the early 1950s often adopted the forms of aggressive or wounded animals, insects or birds. The critic Herbert Read associated such figures with a mood of post-war anxiety. He used a quotation from TS Eliot to characterise them as 'images of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas...'

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

Bernard Meadows b.1915

Black Crab 1951-2



425 x 340 x 242 (16 ¾ x 13 3/8 x 9 ½)

Cast inscription ‘M [circled] / 0/8’ on underside of middle cross-piece

Purchased from the artist through the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (Grant-in-Aid) 1982

Marjorie Meadows, the artist’s wife

Exhibited († = unidentified cast, ‡ = other cast):
Exhibition of Works by Sutherland, Wadsworth, Adams, Armitage, Butler, Chadwick, Clarke, Meadows, Moore, Paolozzi, Turnbull, British Pavilion, XXVI Venice Biennale, May-October 1952 (135†)
Sculpture in the Home: Third Exhibition, Arts Council tour 1953-4, Gloucester College of Art, May 1953, Cotton Board, Manchester, June-July, Herbert Temporary Art Gallery, Coventry, July-August, Temple Newsam House, Leeds, August-September, Warwick County Museum, September-October, Glasgow School of Art, November-December, Aberdeen Art Gallery, December 1953-January 1954, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, March 1954, New Burlington Galleries, London, April-May 1954 (27†, reproduced)
Young British Sculptors, British Council tour of USA. and Canada 1955-6, Arts Club of Chicago, March 1955, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, April-May, Contemporary Art Centre, Cincinnati, September-October, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, November-December, Art Gallery of Toronto, Jan.-Feb. 1956 (41‡, reproduced as 1952)
Sculpture 1961, Arts Council Welsh Committee tour, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, July-September 1961, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, September, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, October, University College, Bangor, November (33†, reproduced as 1954)
Recent British Sculpture: Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Hubert Dalwood, Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Meadows, Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi, British Council tour of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong 1961-4, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, April-June 1961, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, August-September, Winnipeg Art Gallery, September-October, Norman Mckenzie Art Gallery, Regina College, November, Art Gallery of Toronto, January-February 1962, Public Library and Art Museum, London, Ontario, February-March, Vancouver Art Gallery, March-April, Auckland Institute and Museum, July, Dominion Museum, Wellington, August-September, Otago Museum, Dunedin, October, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, November-December 1962, Western Australia Art Gallery, Perth, January-February 1963, National Gallery of Victoria, Melborne, July-August, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, September-October, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, November-December 1963, Newcastle War Memorial Cultural Centre, January 1964, Albert Hall, Canberra, February, Bridgestone Art Gallery, Tokyo and other Japanese venues, including Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, July-August, City Hall Art Gallery, Hong Kong, August-September 1964 (45†)
Roger Hilton Paintings, Gwyther Irwin Collages, Joe Tilson Painted Constructions, Bernard Meadows Sculpture and Drawings, British Pavilion, XXXII Venice Biennale, May-October 1964 (no number†, repr.)
Roger Hilton, Gwyther Irwin, Bernard Meadows, Joe Tilson, British Council European tour 1964-5, Modern Gallery, Zagreb, Kunstamt Reinickendorf, Berlin, Museen der Stadt Recklinghausen, Kunstverein Braunschweig, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, May-June 1965 (42†)
Nine Living British Sculptors, Lalit Kala Akademi/British Council tour of India 1965-6, Lalit Kala Akademi Gallery, Delhi, November-December 1965, Government College of Arts and Crafts, Calcutta, December, Rajaji Hall, Madras, January 1966, Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay, February 1966 (30†)
?British Sculpture 1952-1962, North-West Arts Festival, Brooke Park Gallery, Londonderry, April 1967, Ulster Museum, Belfast, May-June (27†, as 1954)
Yedi Ingiliz Heykeltrasi (Seven British Sculptors): Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick, Hubert Dalwood, Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Meadows, Henry Moore, British Council & Turco-British Association tour, 1970, Ankara, Istanbul (21†)
British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century. Part 2: Symbol and Imagination 1951-80, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, November 1981-January 1982 (52‡)
Forty Years of Modern Art, Tate Gallery, London, December 1985 - April 1986 (no number, reproduced in colour)
Bernard Meadows Retrospective, Gimpel Fils, London, September-October 1995 (1†, as 1953)

R.H. Wilenski, Modern Movement in Art, London 1927, 4th ed. 1957, p.42, reproduced fig.63
W.J. Strachan, ‘The Sculptor and his Drawings: Bernard Meadows’, Connoisseur, April 1974, vol.185, no.746, pp.288-93, reproduced p.289
W.J. Strachen, Towards Modern Sculpture: Maquettes and Sketches from Rodin to Oldenburg, London 1976, p.185, reproduced (as Crab, 1953-4)
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, London 1986, p.278
Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool 1988, p.76, reproduced
Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1995, pp.12, 39, reproduced pl.18
Tim Hilton, ‘Just a Little Bit Moore’, Independent on Sunday, 24 Sept. 1995, p.22
Richard Cork, Shaping up to his Mortal Dread’, Times, 29 Sept. 1995, p.34
Un siècle de sculpture anglaise, Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris 1996, p.473, reproduced

R[obert] M[elville], ‘Exhibitions’, Architectural Review, vol.112, no.668, Aug. 1952, p.130

Black Crab not only marks a seminal point in Bernard Meadows’ career, it may also be seen as a key work in the history of post-war British sculpture. It was shown at the 1952 Venice Biennale where the group of sculptors who became associated with the label of ‘the geometry of fear’ was conjoined and received with acclaim. Through the heavy promotion of the British Council, who had brought them together in Venice, during the 1950s and early 1960s these artists would become known throughout the world. Their name derived from Herbert Read’s introduction to the Venice catalogue, in which he positioned the work within a context of Existentialist philosophy and contemporary anxieties. To set the tone he quoted from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and the reference may have been prompted by Meadows’ sculpture:

These new images belong to an iconography of despair, or of defiance; and the more innocent the artist, the more effectively he transmits the collective guilt. Here are images of flight, of ragged claws ‘scuttling across the floors of silent seas’, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.[1]

Of Meadows specifically, he wrote rather elliptically of the artist’s work as ‘a baroque fantasy; from an animal form, a cock or a crab, he will elaborate a vortex in which the animal’s virtue is caught in a snare’.

Read’s description of Meadows’ work reflected the writer’s own desire to establish a shared quality between the otherwise distinctive artists: a ‘consistent avoidance of massiveness, of monumentality’.[2] It was this which distinguished their work from that of Henry Moore – ‘the parent of them all’ – and Read linked this aspect to a sense of anguish that he identified in the sculptures. The artists’ choice of materials determined, in part, the forms of the work: Reg Butler forged iron rods to produce linear, spiky figures, Lynn Chadwick cut sheet metal and Edouardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull showed a disregard for traditional finish in their bronzes. Read established an equivalence between the sculptures’ ‘wiry’ appearance and an art that ‘is close to the nerves, nervous’. The openness of the forms, in contrast to Moore’s volumetric sculpture, was also seen as a signifier of existential despair: ‘They have seized Eliot’s image of the Hollow Men, and given it an isomorphic materiality. They have peopled the Waste Land with their iron waifs’.[3]

In comparing their work with Eliot’s poetry, Read placed the sculptors not only in a trajectory of modernist alienation, but also in the context of a specifically post-war sense of desolation. Just as The Waste Land (1922) was seen as a seminal expression of modern consciousness after the slaughter of the First World War, so the work of the ‘geometry of fear’ sculptors was presented as a cultural manifestation of the anguish following the horrors of World War Two, the Holocaust and the anxieties of the new nuclear age. As such, they were aligned with such cultural expressions as, for example, the work of Francis Bacon in Britain, or Jean Fautrier and Germaine Richier in France. Meadows was interested in Existentialism and his work has been related to the writing of Jean Paul Sartre and Samuel Becket.[4] His sculpture has, thus, been implicitly aligned with these authors’ recurring themes: the individual’s fundamental isolation and inability to communicate effectively, the sense of nothing beyond oneself and the consequent absurdity of one’s actions.

Lawrence Alloway linked Read’s existential gloss to the sculptors’ choice of subject:

To justify the openness of form in their sculpture, artists have turned to non-human sources: insects, with their extensive legs, antennae, wings and long thin bodies being particularly convenient ... Bernard Meadows uses crabs and cocks’.[5]

With those two themes, which dominated his work of the first half of the 1950s, Meadows developed motifs that embodied a duality of aggression and vulnerability. Its large pincers ensure that the crab is associated with violence but, as with Eliot’s description of its ‘scuttling’, one may see something absurd about the way that it moves and its limbs flail around. Meadows described his animal subjects as,

human substitutes, they are vehicles, expressing my feelings about human beings. To use non-human figures is for me at the present time less inhibiting; one is less conscious of what has gone before and is more free to take liberties with the form and to make direct statements than with the human figure: nevertheless they are essentially human.[6]

The artist later confirmed such a reading of his work in general. ‘It may sound pretentious’, he said in 1992, ‘but it’s all about the human condition. The crabs, and the birds, and the armed figures, the pointing figures, are all about fear ... I think its perhaps not fear, its vulnerability’.[7] ‘Threat’ was another key term for the artist.[8]

Black Crab is one of numerous treatments of the crab theme by Meadows. At the Venice Biennale it was shown alongside a larger, more representational work, Crab, 1951-2 (?painted plaster, 680 mm high), which was subsequently destroyed.[9] A comparison of the two illuminates the process of abstraction that led to the form of the Tate’s work. Essentially, in Black Crab the crab’s pincers have been enlarged in relation to its body, which largely becomes a void, and joined together by a strip across the top. The legs were reduced in scale to become an overlapping network providing a tripod-like support for the sculpture. In contrast, the pincers of Crab, 1951-2 are raised as if in defence and the body, though hollow, is more volumetric. The artist had shown a Crab (plaster, 610 x 610 mm, whereabouts unknown) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts a few months before the Venice Biennale.[10] He returned to the theme in the mid 1950s with a sculpture based on a spider crab, which was acquired by Jesus College, Cambridge and which, as a consequence, was dubbed Large ‘Jesus’ Crab (Larger Spider Crab), 1954.[11] He also produced a smaller version of that work, Crab, 1954 (Tate Gallery T03759). In 1956 he made Tank Crab (private collection),[12] which is comparable to the work of Lynn Chadwick in the way that the low-set body, poised on legs which are all bent in one direction, gives the creature a sense of impetus and internal tension. In the 1980s he produced a variation on the theme of Black Crab - Crab 1985 - and a slightly larger version of that.[13]

Unlike the other works, Black Crab was not based on an actual crab species but was, in the artist’s words, ‘the distillation of crabness’.[14] His fascination with the fearsome crustacea stemmed from the war when he was stationed on the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean. Eight hundred miles west of Singapore, the Cocos are renowned for the size, variety and numbers of crabs, some of which grow to over two feet in size and this, obviously, had an enormous impact on Meadows. He spoke of the way in which the animal life there instilled him with a sense of apprehension which informed his work after the war:

the origin of the works which I did when I got back, which were concerned with sort of frightening crawlies, crabs and spiders ... to see half-way up one of the palm frond walls a black widow spider, and you look away and you look back and its gone, and you don’t know where its gone ... that sort of set up of fear was the basis for a lot of things that I did when I got back.[15]

The size and strength of the Cocos crabs added to their threatening aspect; Meadows recalled tying one to a table overnight to find in the morning that it had cut through the leg and made its escape.[16]

A contemporary artistic source for Meadows’s use of the crustscea motif was Picasso’s painting. Though he did not paint crabs, Picasso produced several works in which lobsters or crayfish play a prominent part and these motifs and his style were adopted by a number of British artists in the 1940s, particularly those labelled as neo-romantic such as John Craxton. The creatures’ long feelers and extended claws suited them to the late Cubist style and made them appropriate symbols of a latent aggression. Some commentators, however, have suggested a sexual reading, with shell fish and fish seen as symbols for female and male genitalia and angling as symbolic copulation.[17] More pertinent to the motif of the crab, perhaps, is the suggestion of a representation of castration anxiety in paintings of crustacea.[18] Certainly one claim for Picasso is similar to Meadows’ discussion of his own work: that lobsters ‘with their spiny exoskeletons, eyes on stalks, and mechanically articulated limbs had the ability to cause Picasso disquiet, or even a reminiscence of cruelty’.[19]

Meadows has cited Picasso as his major influence; he had seen the exhibition of Guernica in London in 1938 and of war-time paintings in 1946. But, rather than such specific readings, it may be more useful to see his use of the crab as comparable to Picasso’s treatment of general themes of cruelty. These concerns and stylistic devices were also used by Graham Sutherland who used the thorn tree as a symbol of human cruelty in his paintings of 1945-7. His work was exhibited alongside the ‘geometry of fear’ sculptors at Venice, and it seems reasonable to see his thorn paintings as a parallel to their work. More generally, the shared theme and its formal treatment highlights a prevailing concern with individual and collective disquiet in post-war European culture. The use of animals as a metaphorical device was adopted by several artists of the period, including Meadows’ students Elisabeth Frink and Robert Clatworthy. While the latter’s bulls seemed to stand for a defiant masculinity, Frink’s dead birds eloquently articulated a sense of abject vulnerability.[20]

Black Crab successfully suggests a sense of cruelty or aggression and, at the same time, the sense of hollowness on which Read had focussed. This duality stems from its form: the definition of its empty centre by the spatial articulation of its structure. The delicate poise derives from the way the body rises on a single column that, itself, springs from legs narrowing to fine points; the lower void is interrupted by the suggestion of two teeth. The sculpture was modelled in plaster over a metal armature and the plaster was then carved and smoothed when dry. Its presence is made all the more powerful by the black patina chosen by the artist. This was protected with a wax coating, but there are small areas of bare metal, notably at the ‘feet’. The cast has some minor pitting and shows evidence of having been worked directly with a file and the resultant surface texture adds to its aggressive presence.[21]

In common with many of Meadows’ sculptures, the form of Black Crab was initially formulated in two dimensions. A drawing of two crab forms resembling the sculpture was included in the 1952 Venice Biennale display and in 1998, the artist identified it as the source for the work.[22] Other drawings on the theme have been reproduced and, though dated 1953, it is likely that they too predate Black Crab.[23] The pictures help demonstrate the process of formal transformation that intervened between the original idea and the abstract sculpture. The subjects of the drawing retain far more the appearance of an actual crab, while also showing the joining together of the raised pincers that resulted in the distinctive strop-like band across the top of the sculpture. Meadows had originally trained as a painter at Norwich School of Art and the Royal College of Art, London and painting and drawing continued to be a major part of his production. He would frequently return to earlier themes, however, and as a result one has to be careful of identifying a particular drawing as a study for a sculpture.

Black Crab was cast in an edition of eight plus one and, as the inscription indicates, the Tate’s was the artist’s copy. Another cast is in the collection of Clare College, Cambridge. The success of the piece was demonstrated when it was included in an exhibition that toured North America in 1955-6 during which four casts were sold to private collectors there.[24]

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Herbert Read, ‘New Aspects of British Sculpture’, exhibition catalogue, Exhibition of Works by Sutherland, Wadsworth, Adams, Armitage, Butler, Chadwick, Clarke, Meadows, Moore, Paolozzi, Turnbull, British pavilion, XXVI Venice Biennale, 1952
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1995, p.7
[5] Lawrence Alloway, ‘Britain’s New Iron Age’, Artnews, vol.52, summer 1953
[6] Quoted by Bryan Robertson, Recent Sculpture by Bernard Meadows, exhibition catalogue, Gimpel Fils, London 1959
[7] Interview with Tamsyn Woollcombe, 1992, Artists’ Lives, Tate Gallery Archive TAV 415A
[8] Interview with the author, 8 October 1998
[9] Not listed in Bowness 1995, reproduced in Sandy Nairne and Nicholas Serota, British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, London 1981, p.145 (installation photograph)
[10] Young Sculptors, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, January-February 1952
[11] BM 28, reproduced in Bowness 1995, p.138
[12] BM 37, reproduced ibid., p.36, pl.15
[13] Crab 1985 (240 mm/9 ½ in.), BM 128, reproduced in Bowness 1995, p.130, pl.117; Crab, c.1985 (approximately 330 mm/ 13 in.), not in catalogue raisonné, not reproduced
[14] Interview 8 October 1998
[15] Interview 1992
[16] Conversation with the author, 3 September 1998
[17] Neil Cox and Deborah Povey, A Picasso Bestiary, London 1995, p.139
[18] Ibid., p.146
[19] Pierre Daix cited ibid.
[20] Elisabeth Frink, Dead Hen 1953, reproduced in Edwin Mullins, The Art of Elisabeth Frink, London 1972, pl.4
[21] Tate Gallery conservation files
[22] Photograph reproduced ibn Nairne and Serota 1981, p.145; Meadows, interview with the author, 8 October 1998
[23] Reproduced in W.J. Strachan, ‘The Sculptor and his Drawings: Bernard Meadows’, Connoisseur, April 1974, vol.185, no.746, pp.288-9
[24] Young British Sculptors, British Council tour of USA. and Canada 1955-6

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